As well as bringing barrels of laughs into millions of homes across the country, the beauty of Only Fools and Horses’ success lay in the heart that the show contained within its characters and the stories it told. While the Trotters, at the centre of every storyline, were occasionally rude, stupid, dishonest, or unkind, at the show’s core they were good people, and even more importantly they were relatable.
Del’s constant belief that “this time next year we’ll be millionaires”, his resilience, his optimism, and his humour all speak to the many fans who grew to love the show. What’s more, underneath the jokes and the scheming, Del’s character is in some ways a tragic one, something which is part of why he’s still thought of so affectionately.
The best example of this showing through can be seen in perhaps one of the show’s best dramatic scenes, which also happens to be one of its saddest. Broadcast in 1989 as part of the second to last full season of the show, Little Problems sees Rodney and Cassandra finally tie the knot, but it also reveals the tragic reason Del Boy had never been able to settle down.
The episode, ahead of his wedding Rodney confides in Del that he’s disappointed he failed his computing exam, and that he needs £2,000 for his and Cassandra’s new flat, but Del reassures him that these are little problems and he’ll straighten them out, announcing he’d give Rodney the £2,000 as a wedding gift.
After bribing Rodney’s teacher with £150 to get him a pass, without Rodney’s knowledge, the only issue Del has is the £2,000 he promised Rodney is actually owed to the notorious crime bosses the Driscoll brothers who show up at Rodney’s stag night.
When Rodney later confronts Del through the bathroom door, he thinks his older brother ditched him at his stag do, has had too much to drink, and was never going to give him the money. But the viewer sees Del is not feeling sick from alcohol and has actually been beaten up by the Driscolls in order to hold onto the money so he can give it to Rodney.
Later in the episode at the wedding reception the crowd is thinning out and speaking to Marlene, Del is asked why he never settled down with a woman, despite being engaged so many times. He explains it was all because of Rodney, who he had to raise from a child.
“They wanted to get married, but they didn’t want to raise Rodney” he explained. “What was I supposed to do? Get married and put Rodney into care? Nahh. So, I elbowed, it’s family init.”
Marlene tells Del he should be proud of himself after how Rodney has turned out, before Boycie comes and sweeps Marlene off home, leaving just Del and Uncle Albert in the room, before he too dashes out.
As Del is left alone with Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years playing in the background, he picks the miniature groom figure off the top of the wedding cake and tears begin to flow as his loneliness hits home, the camera sweeping out to a wide angle to really emphasise this.
This scene revealed a touching depth to Del’s character as not just a cheeky happy-go-lucky wheeler dealer but a loyal brother who sacrificed the best years of his life to do right by his family, and for many watching it was a real tear-jerker. This included those in the studio, as producer Gareth Gwenlan once revealed that as the scene was being recorded members of the audience were floods of tears, and even David Jason’s were partly real such was the weight of the scene.